The crackle of the fire didn’t wake Kennet. Eytan built it small and hot, the wood still too green to burn without smoke. He skinned the rabbit before he lit it, and doused the flames as soon as it was cooked through.
The smell, brightened by rosemary and coriander from Eytan’s pack, didn’t wake Kennet either, and Eytan bit into the soft meat on his own. The smoke clung to his clothes and hands. He breathed it in deep and looked at the open sky above them, nervous suddenly, for having cooked inside the cave. If they stayed another day, he would light the next fire outside, let the smoke mark the middle of nowhere instead.
When he had taken his share, he took a place in the shadow of the closed ceiling, watched Riva and listened hard for anyone coming up through the dark.
Kennet rolled over late in the afternoon. He glared at the sun as if it had insulted him. Rolling to his other side, he paused, blinking at the rabbit meat Eytan had left for him as it appeared in front of his nose. He took two thick bites and chewed them through before he dragged himself up.
Sitting, he found Eytan, and rolled to his feet to join him in the shade. He took another bite. “What do you think happened?” he asked, sucked the juice off his bottom lip, and swallowed.
“She died,” Eytan said.
“Dek,” Kennet swore dryly. “Do you think she took him down with her?”
Kennet raised an eyebrow.
“There was another body,” Eytan told him. “I dragged it north a while. But we both know she would have won a fair fight. Someone else probably limped away.”
Kennet nodded to himself. “So they’re probably still looking for her.”
“Probably,” Eytan agreed.
Kennet took a breath, then shot him a crooked smile. “She inspires such loyalty. How long do you think it will take her to come back this time?”
Eytan considered her stone-still expression. Last month, it had taken her eleven days. Earlier in the year, seventeen. The year before that, six. A long time ago, she said that it had taken her two years and she had beaten her way up out of a rotted pine box. She always crawled back, exhausted. It was hard to say whether the practice improved her timing, or sucked some marrow and mettle away.
Her elbows had fallen onto the stone floor. Her toes pointed a little too high where he had pulled her heels too far.
“Twenty moiet says she’ll be back in five days or less,” Kennet said crisply. He gave Eytan a dull look, warning him away from this stretching silence.
Eytan snorted. “You’re on,” he said.
They clasped hands, grip tight on each other’s arms to mark the wager.
“Hey,” Kennet whispered at midnight when they traded watches. He leaned toward Eytan, instinctively quiet in the dark, and his words spit warmth into the night chill. The starlight shaded one side of his face in blue, cast the other into shadow, but his eyes were bright. His lips tipped into their constant smile. “Where are her things?”
Eytan shook his head. “Too heavy.”
He could see Kennet building his joke as soon as the other man raised his eyebrows, as soon as he looked Eytan up and down. “For you?”
Eytan pushed him away.
“She’s going to thump you for leaving her war hammer behind,” Kennet laughed. “And for finally admitting you’re too weak for it when she’s not around to hear.”
“Go to sleep,” Eytan grunted.
The next day, Kennet glanced up when Eytan returned with fresh cooked meat. He had his arms draped over his knees while he sat across from Riva. “I don’t know what she’s going to be madder about,” he said with another smile. “You losing her hammer, or that new haircut.” He pointed at her split braid, lying on the ground beside her head.
Eytan dropped his things back into the pile by the wall. Stepping to his side, he offered a leg off the new rabbit. “The hammer,” he decided.
“Yeah?” Kennet asked.
“Yeah,” Eytan said. “She’s just going to see what happened and shave her head.”
Kennet laughed, because he had pictured her bald, because Eytan was right.
“We’re going to be late,” Kennet said on the third day.
“We’re still two weeks from Eruldin.”
Eytan glanced at him, realizing the other man had lost the top edge of his smile somewhere. “King Tomas isn’t ending the border wars any time soon. We’ll catch a recruiter somewhere else.” He glanced behind him at Riva, for the thousandth time, then back to Kennet. “And dead men don’t get paid.”
Nodding, Kennet ran a hand up the back of his neck.
Kennet didn’t look at him when he came back on the fourth day. He asked, “Do you think, if we weren’t here when she woke up, that she’d come looking for us?”
Eytan turned away from him. He dropped his things back by the wall.
On the fifth day, Kennet tested the uneven stones of the cave wall. Then he jumped onto them, and climbed through the crack in the ceiling. At the top, he turned in a circle, head tilted back to look at the trees, and grinned down at Eytan.
On the sixth day, they both heard the crunch of heavy boots in the cave. Kennet ran for his pack in perfect silence, slung it over his shoulder and grabbed his bow. He scrambled up the cave wall, hauled himself over the green broken edge, out of sight, while Eytan picked up his sword and stepped into the thick shadow of the stone. The sunlight cut down, yellow and brilliant, and made Riva paler.